Tories earn mixed grades at best from disabled

TheStar.com – Opinion
Published On Wed Mar 24 201.  By Carol Goar,Editorial Board

It was a welcome gesture.

The Prime Minister’s timing was predictable. The money he announced was not really new. And it won’t change the day-to-day lives of Canadians with disabilities.

But it will help in the long run.

On the closing day of the Paralympics, Stephen Harper announced a $13.5 million allocation to the Rick Hansen Foundation to support its work on spinal cord research and help implement its 25th anniversary campaign of the Man in Motion World Tour.

This, according to the government, was further evidence of its leadership in removing barriers for people with disabilities.

That was a bit hard to swallow.

It is true the Conservatives have taken some positive steps:

They earmarked $9 million over two years for the Rick Hansen Foundation in their recent budget. (Harper added a third year in his Vancouver announcement.)

They created a Registered Disability Savings Plan so parents of children with disabilities could set aside money for their future.

They established a Canada Disability Grant to match individual contributions to these plans (up to $3,500 a year) and a Canada Disability Savings Bond to pay up to $1,000 a year into the plans of low-income Canadians.

They earmarked $75 million in their economic stimulus package for supportive housing.

And they provide communities with $15 million a year to build wheelchair ramps in churches, legions and recreation centres.

Commendable as these initiatives are, they do little for the majority of disabled Canadians who can’t get basic services, can’t get into federally funded job training programs and live in poverty.

Disability advocates are reluctant to talk about the Harper government’s “leadership” on the record because many belong to organizations that receive federal funding. But they do have views. Here is a taste of what they think.

There is one leader in the government, Finance Minister Jim Flaherty. He meets regularly with groups representing Canadians with disabilities. He is responsible for most of the improvements in the tax system. And he understands the challenges they face. His 19-year-old son John contracted encephalitis as a toddler, which left him with a mental disability.

They also give honourable mention to Defence Minister Peter Mackay. On his watch, the military has improved its treatment of disabled war vets.

But they find Human Resources Minister Diane Finley, who ought to be their voice in cabinet, aloof and uninterested in their concerns.

While no one criticizes Rick Hansen for championing people with spinal cord injuries or founding a leading-edge medical research institute, they quietly point out that the Harper government is highly selective in its support, usually favouring projects associated with prominent public figures.

They also note that Harper’s hands-off approach to social issues rules out the kind of federal-provincial programs used by the Liberals to tackle disability issues. The Conservatives rely primarily on the tax system. That’s fine for those who pay taxes and can afford to set aside money. But millions of Canadians with disabilities don’t.

What they’d like to see in the short-term is a national drug plan for people with disabilities; a pan-Canadian poverty-reduction plan for the disabled; job training programs that include people with disabilities; and one tax change Flaherty has yet to make – they want a refundable disability tax credit. The existing one provides nothing to people who have too little income to tax.

Their long-term dream is that Ottawa will lift Canadians with disabilities out of the welfare system entirely, as it did with seniors in the 1960s and has partially done with children.

They know this is not a time to dream. They are grateful for any attention from Ottawa. But they are not ready to congratulate Harper for his leadership.

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